Sunday, 23 May 2010

Science Fiction, Sci-Fi and SF

As the blog title suggests, I'm not adverse to including a little science fiction in my definition of science.  It's a fuzzy boundary, especially when either discipline is done well, and as we know from chaotic systems like the Mandelbrot set, the fuzzy boundaries are the interesting bits...

And buried in there somewhere is the reason I'm a terrible sci-fi snob.  Sorry, but there's a side of me who always pretended to be Spock rather than Kirk when we played Star Trek, and he insists on the proper science thing.  Snobs like me make distinctions between sci-fi genres, and the only real, pure form to a geek of my sensitivities is "Hard" sci-fi.  Not soft csi-fi, not space opera, not fantasy, and definitely nothing whatsoever involving Dan Brown.   

It's all terribly precious and highly strung.

In most definitions of hard sci-fi any semi-magical futuristic events have to have a proper explanation according to the scientific thought at the time, or at least have a good stab at it.  That's where Star Trek, in my opinion, falls into the space opera category.  If you're going to base a faster than light drive on Einstein's model of spacetime then please have the decency to respect the other 60% of the theory and deal with the time dilation effects.  Honestly, it's not only lazy, it's all a bit 1920s isn't it?

Sorry.  Like I said, it's an emotional issue.  

The point is, the best science always involves an element of really good science fiction, and vice versa.  This is my pick of some great science fiction, roughly married to a good book for background reading....

Wednesday, 19 May 2010

Voyage To The Heart Of Matter

So what's missing in the world of science books?  A quick introduction to Multiverse theory?  Nope, old hat.  Hyperbolic Crochet?  Been there, done that.  

A pop-up book about the Large Hadron Collider?  Oh yes.

  When we ran a shop at the Edinburgh Science Festival recently I was tasked with selecting the books we'd stock.  There's a few obvious choices; everything written by any of the speakers for example, and the top 50 or so from our Pop-Sci section in the main shop, but the really fun bit of the job was picking the odd, quirky titles that somebody is bound to buy.  Voyage To The Heart Of Matter was the first book on that list.

It's a bit of a niche title, only eight pages long (well, four really, given the nature of pop-up books), but it's a glorious piece of paper engineering.  It covers every scale, from subatomic structure, through the ATLAS experiment with Brian Cox's "Regulation EU Scale Humans" to....well...everything.  I kid you not, there's a beautifully rendered Big Bang complete with red-shifting galaxies.

It's been a little bit more popular than the publishers expected I's currently out of print, but we're promised a new edition in June 2010.  I know of at least one celebrity endorsement too....the copy we had at the Science Festival was bought by a very lovely kids science author called Lucy Hawking as a present for her dad, Stephen.  That's really cool.

Take a look at it in all its glory at the ATLAS website - you can also pre-order the new edition here.

Voyage To The Heart Of Matter - The ATLAS Experiment at CERN
Anton Radevsky, Emma Sanders

Wednesday, 5 May 2010

Dave Halliday, 1916-2010

I cracked a bit of a gag with our rep from Wiley publishing today along the lines of "David Halliday is coming round later to highlight some of his books".  It's a gag because Dave Halliday's book Fundamentals Of Physics is probably one of the best selling and most comprehensive physics textbooks on the planet, and having it highlighted by the author is probably the best possible way of returning it to the publisher for a refund with no questions asked.

Turns out that it's not all that funny at the moment, because Dave Halliday, physics textbook god and all round nice bloke by all accounts, died a couple of weeks ago.

Aly from Wiley was nice enough to copy me in on an internal company memo.  Dave (as I'll refer to him, as I feel like that) was clearly a person who Wiley, as a company, had a great affection for.  It had less to do with his best selling textbook, and far more to do with the fact that he clearly had a great passion for physics and just as great a passion for communicating it.  I agree...Fundamentals was the one big purchase I made as an undergraduate, and also the one book I've made a point of keeping.  In fact, I've currently got two copies, because at some point the version with the lovely essay covering the Leidenfrost effect was cancelled, and a customer in the shop was good enough to make a point of donating one to me on hearing my laments at losing it.

Dave was a proper physicist in all respects, both the practical (he worked on radar systems in WWII, placing him alongside Arthur C Clarke and Isaac Asimov), and the theoretical...his books were never afraid to nudge the side of science fiction that invariably becomes true given enough time.  By far my favourite suggestion in the book is that final degree exams should be replaced by a firewalking exercise, carrying a copy of Fundamentals under your arm, the idea being that if you believe in physics enough to walk across hot coals, and you believe enough to know just how much it could hurt if it goes wrong, then you deserve a degree.   Then again, I'm biased because I've not got a physics degree and I'd happily carry a copy of Dave's book over hot coals just on principle.

There's a lovely picture that sums up his attitude towards books, and hopefully I'll get permission to replicate it's him alongside a manuscript for a recent edition of Fundamentals.....and he's only slightly taller that the stack of A4.

If you want a comprehensive undergrad level book on physics then buy "Halliday, Resnick & Walker's Fundamentals Of Physics".  If you don't, then please remember David Halliday's name, he's inspired umpteen numbers of physicists who will change the entire universe in the long run.